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A Photographer’s Fight To Shoot 100 Portraits

By // July 31, 2013 // Posted in Uncategorized

“Last time I was in a studio, we shot on film,” writes Giles Duley on his blog. He was getting ready to shoot the first session of his 100 Portraits Before I Die project. “And I had all my limbs.”

While on foot patrol with the 75th Cavalry Regiment in Afghanistan in 2011, the British photographer stepped on a land mine that left him without either of his legs or his left arm, and he sustained severe injuries to the rest of his body. He lay in an intensive care unit for 46 days as a triple amputee, unable to move as his remaining hand sit shattered in a cast, during which he played mental exercises to pass the time. One of these exercises was thinking of all the portraits he wish he had taken, that he likely will never be able to take now.

Giles Duley sits for a post-accident self-portrait. All photos © Giles Duley

Giles Duley sits for a post-accident self-portrait. All photos © Giles Duley

Duley had always loved portraiture, having shot editorial portraits for ten years before refocusing his lens on humanitarian issues to shoot the consequences of global unrest for the next decade of his life as a photojournalist and documentary photographer. Now lying in his hospital bed, the names and faces of people who, as he writes, had shaped his cultural identity bounced around in his mind: famed British photojournalist and war photographer Don McCullin (who Duley writes inspired him to pick up a camera), the controversial hip-hop duo Dead Prez, and actress Natalie Portman, to name a few. Each of the 100 are people who, in Duley’s opinion, never sought celebrity status; they sought their “lifeblood,” just as Duley decided he would his. If he made it through recovery, Duley vowed to himself, he would take these 100 portraits. “I would not waste my second chance at life,” he writes.

Duley used a tungsten lighting set-up to replicate what it might look like if Gino Strada were simply lit by daylight streaming through a window.

Duley used a tungsten lighting set-up to replicate what it might look like if Gino Strada were simply lit by daylight streaming through a window.

Two years and 30 operations later, Duley was outfitted with prosthetic limbs and ready to get back to work. He booked the first person on his bucket list: Gino Strada, the renowned Italian war surgeon who founded Italian NGO Emergency that has so far served 13 wartime countries. Duley writes he became accustomed to complex lighting set-ups for his editorial work, but for this shoot with Strada,  he would keep it simple: “I don’t want the lighting to be intrusive, merely a tool to let me do my work.” He also wanted to avoid using flash, which in his opinion often encourages people to pose.

Ben Okri sits for his portrait on the Bakerloo Line in London.

Ben Okri sits for his portrait on the Bakerloo Line in London.

Next on Duley’s portrait bucket list was Ben Okri, with whom he crossed paths at the Nigerian poet/novelist’s book reading decades ago. “I was utterly moved and captured by his dreamscapes of tradition, storytelling and Africa,” Duley writes of the reading. “His words were so alive.” After the reading, people filed up to have their copies signed by Okri. Having just recovered from a major car accident, Duley was strapped for cash and couldn’t afford a book of Okri’s, but he joined the line anyway just to say “thank you.” When Okri saw that Duley was book-less, he signed a copy and handed it to him without a word. Now Duley’s challenge with Okri’s portrait, he writes, was to capture his “incredible spirit.” He decided he would photograph Okri in transit. “I associate his work with travel, distant places, his presence as calmness in the chaos of our city, London,” he writes.

Two down, 98 to go. It seems Duley has a long way before he has his finished product, but he’s decided to take his time. “I have no idea where this project will lead, who will say yes, who will say no, or what I will learn about the people I meet and about myself,” Duley writes. “I’m not sure if making a photographic portrait of someone is a gift, but for now it was I have to give. It’s a way of acknowledging the impact of others’ art on my path.”

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Libby Peterson

Libby Peterson

Libby Peterson is the associate editor of Rangefinder. She graduated from Indiana University’s School of Journalism last year and moved to New York, starting off as the magazine's editorial intern. Having had a full-immersion French education growing up in her native Minneapolis, she especially enjoys writing about culture, design, and the arts.

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